Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic presidential primary debate (Image: AP/John Minchillo)

To the uninitiated foreigner, the televised debates of the Democratic presidential candidates may seem like a nightmarish talk show. The rapid-fire projection of sweaty heads and blinking infographics beam directly into the deepest corners of the viewer’s tormented id.

But to the foreigner tragic enough to be initiated, such as myself, they are simply a hoot.

My love of the American grotesque has brought me back to this country again and again. The American knack for, and dependence on, spectacle has led me to hot dog eating contests, Halloween dog-costume parades, and underground wrestling matches where men smash florescent light tubes on their opponents’ balding skulls. I am drawn to these spectacles because in them you see and feel the quintessence of America and what it is to be American.

In the moments where that energy hits you, usually somewhere between the 72nd and 73rd hot dog, you begin to understand things like Hiroshima, the Iraq War, and Donald Trump. You understand the U.S of A.

So, at 8pm on a Tuesday, I left my loft apartment above a working glue factory (yes), and sauntered down to Syndicated bar and movie theatre, just off the Morgan L-stop, to watch the 12 Democratic candidates perform like a pack of rats in a cruel experiment.

It is hard to imagine a televised debate filling a pub in Australia, at least outside of the campus taverns where junior wonks gather to down shots to talking points and establish their ongoing unlikability. But, right now at least, Americans are hooked. In every bar I walked past punters had their necks crooked up at a television or projection, their eyes fixed on the Saruman-white mane of CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

I usually watch these debates in a depressive fugue state, but the air in this bar was electric. There was a sense of community, of hope and outrage — a heady notion of collective interest coupled with the unspoken knowledge that four years ago, we all would have found said interest peculiar. There was a communal feeling of oh god this is such bullshit mingled with oh god one of these lab rats better save us. We were in this together.

I think the most immediate and vital takeaway from this debate is that Joe Biden is unelectable. Andrew Yang wore a badge that simply read “MATH” and yet of the 12 (!!!) candidates it was somehow Biden, with his blathering double takes and flashes of befuddlement, who looked like the biggest dingus on stage. The bar jeered whenever he finished ranting, they laughed at his incoherence, they muttered in fear of the reliably useless Democratic National Convention picking him as their candidate.

A part of me wants to see the spectacle of Trump v Biden — two dueling banjos of bewilderment. But Trump, whose rambling nonsense is worn proudly, would annihilate Biden on the campaign trail.

Other than Biden, the stage was a veritable Fellowship of the Wingnuts. The majority of these candidates will be forgotten like straight-to-DVD National Lampoon spin-offs by this time next year. Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and Yang: they are all there to establish themselves as brands. For men like billionaire Tom Steyer, the whole ordeal is a slapstick foxtrot of giddily misplaced ego.

Then there’s the middle children: Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Mayor Pete Buttgieg, “Marcia Marcia Marcia”-ing their way to a VP slot. Harris speaks with the inhuman halting of an algorithm focus-grouped by androids, and Beto continues to fade like the cover of a skate magazine from 2004. Booker and Buttgieg are the only ones that maintain a spark of genuine potential, not to clinch the nomination, but to sincerely steer the narrative. Booker, bless him, was the most nakedly open in his intent to do so: he repeatedly (and rightly) insisted the candidates desist from tearing each other apart to the benefit of no one but Trump.

His pleading seemed to fall on deaf ears.

In the end it’s Bernie or Warren, and to think otherwise is to be dumb or hopeless. This is Brooklyn, so you’d expect Bernie’s curmudgeonly scolding of the mega-rich and mega-powerful would be met with enthusiastic cheers from the bar. But it was Warren whose messaging seemed to resonate further and more consistently with the crowd. Her brilliant strategy of explaining exactly how she will do a thing is giving her a one-up on Bernie’s brilliant strategy of let’s do a thing.

But like the hot dog eating, this is entertainment before it is competition. When someone eats more than 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes a constant stream of bright red drool and water runs from their frantically flapping mouth. I know, I’ve seen it. Twice. Even when you win, you’ve just spent 10 minutes with a crowd focused on you, narrowing in on the horror. With every one of these debates, we see more hot dog water ooze from the candidates’ mouths, and they become less appealing.

I’ve only ever seen one presidential candidate take pride in his hot dog water, and his buns are currently in the Oval Office.

Which Democrat stands a chance against Trump? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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